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Designing a High School for Collaborative, Project-based Learning

By Randall Fielding, AIA

Collaboration and project-based learning are often listed as key objectives in the planning of a learning environment; these methods foster creative connections and synthesis, skills that students need to succeed. Research by Susan Wolff, Ed.D., on design features for project-based learning include 32 design features that support collaborative, project-based learning.* Included among those are:

  • Variable sized spaces
  • Individual workspace
  • Presentation space
  • Cave space
  • Spaces with access to food and beverage
  • Process galleries, studios and labs
  • Collaboration incubator
  • Get away spaces or niches
  • Display spaces
  • Access to technology

The furnishing plan for Harbor City International School (HCIS), shown below, illustrates these features.

HCIS, a public charter school in downtown Duluth, Minnesota, serves grades 9 through 12. Located on the 3rd floor of an 1860’s industrial building, the school provides a small, learner-directed community that encourages investigative learning, global citizenship and nurtures a sense of belonging.

HCIS will have a total of 110 seats available in the fall of 2002, with a projected enrollment of 200 students in 2004; the school expects to expand onto the 4th floor as enrollment grows. The 12,000 square foot 3rd floor area is small by high school standards—typically about 150 SF per student is used, which would equal about 17,000 square feet— however, HCIS is located within walking distance of the public library, YMCA, art museum, and television station, so the school can leverage other facilities for instruction.

hcis plan Each student has a homebase comprised of a lockable drawer, coat hook, and an individual workstation shared with another student. Depending on the time of day and adjacent activities, the workstation can serve as either “cave space” or a collaboration incubator. Many of the workstations have round conference ends, serving as an informal meeting area. Workstations also include an acoustically absorptive tack board and partial height enclosure.

HCIS will utilize a wireless network for general communications, word processing, spreadsheets, and Web research. White boards with a medium textured surface double as projection screens. An Ethernet connection with category 5 wiring supports projection of large graphic, video or music files. Ethernet connections are also located in the media lab, offices, teacher’s room, and library.

A cafe serves as a social team area, with an adjacent sink, refrigerator, microwave, and juice vending machine. Two couches and comfortable chair clusters near large, arched-top windows with a view of Lake Superior, are located within the cafe area, allowing for informal learning and “get away” space. Rectangular tables along a wall, with display space, provide for informal study and eating. Round tables in the center accommodate up to six students for eating or project work. An enclosed warming kitchen is available for catered hot meals.

In contrast to the lively, high volume character of the cafe, a quiet team area is located a the center of the school. Student workstations, bookcases and couch/comfy chair clusters support individual work and small group meetings.

The library includes a private conference room, study carrels and two overstuffed armchairs in a niche created by a unique brick archway.

A presentation forum includes a raised platform and a 12-foot dedicated projection screen. The chairs are movable, so that the space can be used in various ways; for example, following a presentation, students can rearrange into breakout groups.

A media lab, art room and science lab provide for both hi-tech and messy functions. The media lab has a sound control wall enclosure and both theater-type and direct/indirect lighting, allowing it to serve as a recording studio. A double-glazed interior window provides a view from the central cafe and workstation area into the media lab. Interior windows are used throughout the school to bring light into the interior, as well as to foster connections between adjacent spaces.

Randall Fielding, AIA, is the editor of DesignShare, and a practicing architect specializing in educational facility planning and design. Fielding takes a collaborative approach, working with other architects to offer a full range of services. The design for HCIS was a collaborative effort involving educational planner and principal designer Fielding in association with Scalzo architects and project designer Peter Krieps. Randall Fielding also is the editor and publisher of DesignShare. He can be reached at

* See “Design Features for Project-Based Learning,” by Susan J. Wolff, Ed.D., 69 pages, February 2002,

This article was first published in a similar format in the March/April edition of School Construction News.

April 11th, 2006

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